The Effects of Technology on Our Environment

Complexity science tells us that our world is a vast complicated system containing many smaller sub-systems that are just as complex as the over-arching system that emerges through the interaction and operation of the myriad parts of that system.  With this view of the world around us, it is not possible to consider the development of technology without considering its effect on the complex systems that make up the world around us.

Every complex system has its own form and inherent characteristics.  But in order to be considered a true complex system, it must display these following characteristics.  It must be:

  • Emergent.
  • Self-Organizing
  • Complex
  • Dynamic
  • Evolving
  • Agent-Based
  • Operating in a position far from equilibrium.

A true complex system is more than the sum of its parts.  This is due to the interactions between the agents that make up the system.  Once these interactions have caused a complex system to emerge, you cannot reduce the system to something less than it is without it becoming a different system or ceasing to be a complex system all together.

A complex system is considered be to complex because the agents that work together to make up the system are themselves complex systems.  The inter-relationships between the members of this web of sub-systems give the over-lying complex system the ability to react when faced with a threat or other conditions that differ from the norm.  The system reacts to these outside stimuli as well as feedback inputs that are generated internally.  Because of this, complex systems are dynamic in nature.  They will never reach a point of equilibrium.

If equilibrium is reached, the system will become static and will eventually stagnate and die.  Complex systems do not seek a state of equilibrium.  Instead, they seek a state of self-organized criticality at a point far from equilibrium.  This steady state of operation is distributed across the system as a whole and it allows the system to adapt to the changes or perturbations that are introduced into the system.

So, when technology is introduced into this vast complex system that is our environment, it is not possible to predict or take into consideration all of the variables that will be affected or acted upon.  Indeed, it has been shown that, “technology in the past has been used to create a human-built world, to make machines for production, to create large systems, especially ones dedicated to information,” (Hughes, 154).  It is the creation of this ‘human-built world’ that has affected the complex system of our environment in both beneficial and detrimental ways.  Even simple technologies can have far-reaching and powerful impacts when they are introduced to a vast complex system like our environment.

A prime example of this is the internal combustion engine.  This relatively simple invention has led to some of the largest ecological, economic and political issues that our culture is facing today.  Among these issues are global warming, toxic pollution, economic and territorial disputes over petroleum deposits and exploitation, and even armed conflicts between nations. To think that all this came about because Henry Ford wanted to make a car that everyone could afford simply boggles the mind.  And the resolution of these issues will not be simple, because any solution must consider all of the variables.  That is to say, “A reductionist approach that is limited to technology will not respond adequately to the problem.  Such a reductionist approach is rightly labeled a ‘technological fix’,” (Hughes, 154) and will not be sufficient to correct or overcome the problem.  Because this ‘simple’ technology has become a part of the complex system of our world, the solution requires a multifaceted, complex approach.  Or to put it in the words of my grandfather, “There ain’t no quick fix, boys and girls.  We’re gonna have to work at it.”


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